So there I was at the library and the “new arrivals” end cap had this book on it. As someone whose university work was in biblical studies and manuscripts, this sounded like an interesting book. I like manuscripts. I like libraries. I like librarians. I like the word Timbuktu. And I like having a way to type “bad-ass” without my conservative Christian readers getting to upset! I might ruffle a couple feathers, but c’mon, people – I didn’t create the book title.
I will take umbrage at Joshua Hammer’s subtitle, though. “And their race to save the world’s most precious manuscripts” is a highly subjective opinion. That is to say, I would not put the value of these manuscripts above the value of biblical manuscripts. From my worldview, ancient Jewish and Christian manuscripts are the world’s MOST precious. But in the book, Mr. Hammer doesn’t use comparative language to talk about Timbuktu’s texts and other religious texts, so the subtitle seems to be more click-bait writing than assertion of fact.
The book itself is primarily the history of the textual tradition of Timbuktu, which was to West Africa what Alexandria was in Egypt, a giant repository of learning, thinking, and writing. What makes the librarians of Timbuktu so incredible is that they have been in a long-term struggle to collect and preserve the manuscripts for nearly 700 years. Time and again, the region was overcome by extremists who disliked the idea of wide and varied learning being stored and disseminated, so there has been continual struggle between those who love the texts and Muslims who believe the texts pull people away from Islam.
In that sense, the book almost becomes a defense against moderate Islam, portraying moderates and lovers of learning and embracing of a plethora of ideas.
So the radical Muslims who want to destroy the books are the bad-guys. Mr. Hammer digresses in his story of the librarians to devote quite a few pages to the history of the extremist Muslims and Al Qaeda in the region. Regardless of one’s faith, I think we can all appreciate the bravery and daring of the people who worked to hide, recover, and salvage these ancient manuscripts.
All said and done, I found the book to be very interesting and it taught me things about Africa I never knew. The literary tradition in Africa, contrary to some Western thought, was not nonexistent. People of all cultures are more alike than we sometimes give them credit for, and Western and Northern Africa has had its fair share of poets, mathematicians, doctors, and philosophers who believed in committing to paper (or animal skin, or whatever) thoughts, words, sentences, and books. I also enjoyed learning more about the history of the region.
Finally, the book helps remind me of the painstaking work Christian scholars have done (and continue to do) with biblical manuscripts. If you’re interested, take some time to look into the work of Bruce Metzger and others who write about the New Testament and our own textual traditions.